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Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: How Business Leaders Can Help Narrow Income Inequality

January 17, 2017, 11:00 AM UTC

People are losing faith in the future, believing that their children will be worse off than they are. They are asking whether new technology is the road to a better future for all or only the few who are orchestrating the reshaping of our world.

We don’t have to look very far to see the transformational and disruptive changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Everyone and everything on our planet is becoming connected, spawning massive tributary flows of digital information on a scale unthinkable a decade ago. By 2020, more people will be equipped with mobile phones than have electricity or running water in their homes or villages. Facebook today has a larger population than China or India. And advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are breaking down man-machine barriers and augmenting human potential.

At the same time, this unprecedented democratization of technology and flattening of our world doesn’t guarantee a more open, diverse and inclusive global society. A Balkanization of countries previously open to free trade and free borders is under way with the result of nation states squarely grounded in a new nationalism. We can see the effects this geopolitical shift in the lack of trust for institutions and growing instability around the world. While the Fourth Industrial Revolution is enabling extraordinary levels of innovation and efficiency, it’s also contributing to a widening inequality gap.

As business leaders, we have an obligation to ensure that the changes wrought by technology transcend our companies and benefit all of humanity. I believe that four core, linked values are critical to navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution going forward and addressing the complex challenges it presents: Trust, Growth, Innovation, and Equality.

Build trust

Many might recall The Terminator the movie, and know where this could go.

Imagine an armed, autonomous drone operated by a private security company whizzes by your family’s home looking for problems in your local neighborhood. It has replaced the two cops who walked the streets, or drove by occasionally in their patrol car. When it finds something that is out of order, the drone facilitates the arrest and brings in other autonomous technology to support it.

Will consumers trust that these new AI and robotic systems to augment human efforts, or will they fear them? Similarly, in this digital age, will citizens trust the institutions and service providers who maintain their data? Will social media be used to enlighten or manipulate us? We need to bring transparency into how we govern and manage this technology, and develop security models that allows us to have confidence that these systems won’t be hacked, run amuck or become tools of oppression by those who control them.

Stimulate growth

Government leaders around the world are making jobs and rising incomes their primary pledge to citizens. They are promising to create millions of new jobs, but they will quickly find that creating jobs as new technologies disrupt vast industries is far more challenging than in previous eras. Moving factories run by automated robots from one country to another isn’t an answer to national unemployment woes.

Advances in AI and robotics are rapidly consuming jobs, and widening the economic inequality gap around the world even further. The World Bank estimates that increasing automation will put 57% of the jobs in the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at risk, including 47% of U.S. jobs and 77% of the jobs in China.

While many existing jobs will be eliminated or transformed — especially manual and routine jobs that are easily automated—new kinds of jobs that require different skill sets will emerge. By one estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will have to prepare for jobs in categories that don’t yet exist.

Either the inequality gap continues to widen, leaving and the world much less stable, or we invest in the creating thepolicies and education programs that train young people for the jobs of tomorrow and retrain displaced workers. For those who cannot be retrained, and even those traditionally not compensated for raising a family or volunteering to help others, we need to look at universal basic income, where governments would provide citizens additional income beyond what they already earn at their jobs. These are the challenges we face in establishing dynamic job growth in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Spur innovation

There is more innovation happening today than any other time in human history. It’s not just the information technology we experience every day on our smart phones, it’s a broad technology shift that includes nanotechnology, virtual reality, 3D printing and genetic engineering, in addition to AI and robotics. For example, genome editing technologies, such as CRISPR, are bringing us closer to curing some of the most devastating diseases affecting humankind and creating more drought-resistant crops.

We now have exciting new ways to deal with the Zika virus, which is spread primarily by the Aedes mosquito. With CRISPR/cas9 technology a mosquito’s genes can be modified to eliminate its ability to reproduce. Advances in AI and robotics are breaking down barriers between humans and machines with deep learning neural networks powering intelligent digital assistants and smart robots performing complex surgeries.

But, these incredible technology breakthroughs could also impact our species and ecosystems in unpredictable and unwanted ways. We need to ensure that the technical innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are applied to solving the complex problems we face while protecting society from irreversible damage.

Drive equality

Technology can separate us as easily as it can bring us together. Today, the top 1% owns more than 50% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 50% has less than 1%. And, the richest 10% holds nearly 90% of the world’s wealth. And that gap is widening as technological disruption progresses. New AI-based trading mechanisms, for example, are allowing major banks and hedge funds to tip the scales in their favor. Autonomous vehicles will significantly impact the transportation labor force in coming years.

While technology is a factor in closing the inequality gap, access to a high-quality education and the opportunities that affords is critical. Today, an estimated 263 million children and youth worldwide are out of school, which is equivalent to about 80% of the U.S. population. They are going to be unprepared to succeed as technology continues to advance. Equality is also about providing equal access, opportunities and rights for women and minorities. For example, women on average have less than two-thirds of the economic opportunity compared to men, and the World Economic Forum forecasts economic parity for women will take 170 years. Without proper governance and incentives, technology will accelerate the pace of inequality.

The changes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution bring will be beyond anything we have witnessed before. Businesses driving the global economy are the greatest platforms for change, and as business leaders we can choose whether we commit ourselves to harnessing the new technologies and engaging with our communities to improve the state of the world, or let it erode what binds us together and cripple our planet. Every company has employees who want to give back to their communities, who can volunteer at their local schools to teach kids to code, help displaced workers learn new skills or support a nonprofit focused on helping others. This is a vast army of millions of individuals who can have an enormous impact on closing the inequality gap.

When Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, first outlined the dimensions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution last year, he said, “We must look past our own narrow interests and attend to the interests of our global society.” A more equitable world, supported by living-wage job growth, transformed by phenomenal innovations will lead to a trust revolution that allows us to face the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a responsible and responsive way. It’s within our grasp to work together to create a better future.

Marc Benioff is CEO of